By STEVE KRAH
When the “Parade of Champions” begins circling the mats at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Friday, Feb. 21, the Western Panthers will be well-represented.
Coming off the program’s second semistate team championship and first since 1994, Western will have senior Hunter Cottingham (42-2 at 132 pounds), juniors Braydon Erb (42-3 at 285) and Anthony Martin (39-3 at 106) and sophomore Hayden Shepherd (39-5 at 138) competing on Indiana high school wrestling’s biggest stage.
Shepherd placed second at the Fort Wayne Semistate and the other third finished third.
Seven of eight Western wrestlers at the semistate were first-round winners and Cottingham, Erb, Martin and Shepherd won in the “ticket round” to give the Panthers 53 of their meet-winning 72 points.
“I think we picked up a few bonus points along the way,” says Western head coach Chad Shepherd. “It was a group effort for sure.”
Shepherd says his team is especially strong at the lower weights.
“I’ve said a couple of times this year that not that we’d beat them all, but there’s not a team in Indiana that I’d be afraid to wrestle from 106 to 138 because we’re pretty good,” says Shepherd. “Our guys go out and compete and they work hard.”
Shepherd, a Western graduate, explains his philosophy.
“Basically, my thing is go out and compete, don’t take anything for granted,” says Shepherd. “Win the matches you should win and along the way maybe pick off a couple that maybe you shouldn’t win.
“The guys buy into that.”
Cottingham is now a four-time state qualifier and is looking to get past the first round for the first time.
Shepherd was a state champion at 135 in 1991 and went to Indianapolis after placing third at semistate and stressed that to Cottingham.
“It can be done,” says Shepherd. “We need to get through that first night and get on the podium.”
Cottingham likes to be aggressive.
“If I can get to my offense, I don’t think too many people can stop me.” says Cottingham. “I’ve just got to find my rhythm.”
“Right now it’s survive and advance. I have to keep fighting.”
Western won the 2A title at the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association State Duals in 2018-19 and placed third in 2019-20.
“Our team was definitely different this year,” says Cottingham. “Our main core group of guys stuck together and some freshmen came in and helped us this year. We’ve progressed into a pretty solid team.”
Cottingham and Hayden Shepherd are regular drill partners.
“We push each other around,” says Cottingham.
Shepherd says Erb is still getting acclimated in grappling with wrestlers closer to the 285 limit.
“He’s at 250,” says Shepherd of Erb. “For a heavyweight, that’s not huge. He’s probably the smallest heavyweight that go through (the Fort Wayne Semistate) weight-wise.”
“Braydon can wrestle with those guys.”
Erb says this year’s squad excelled more in the tournament format.
“We can really get on teams and win them,” says Erb, who tumbles in the practice room with assistant coach Tommy Skinner and occasionally with brother Braxton Erb (Western Class of 2017).
Martin experienced his first wrestling season as a freshman and has been varsity the past two seasons. He was semistate qualifier in 2019and lost in a quick first-round pin.
“Anthony probably put in as much work as any of them over the summer between open workouts, the weight room and going to tournaments,” says Shepherd. “It paid off.”
Martin assesses his strengths.
“I’m a lot stronger than most of the 106-pounders I wrestle,” says Martin. “I’m pretty fast. I’m better at staying on my feet and getting takedowns.”
Martin says the coaching staff tells him to stay mentally strong through his matches and to “keep wrestling.”
Martin’s regular workout partners are juniors Aidan Belt (120) and Justin Brantley (126), who were also semistate qualifiers along with senior Chandler Ciscell (126) and freshman M.J. Norman (182).
“(Belt and Brantley) are always pushing me,” says Martin. “There’s a real good middle schooler — (eighth grader) Tanner Tishner. He just won middle school state (at 95 pounds). He’s not very big, but his technique is crazy. He pushes me a lot, too.”
Hayden Shepherd is the coach’s son.
“For him to make it to the State Finals in his first two years is pretty good,” says Chad Shepherd.
Hayden Shepherd is impressed with his team.
“We’ve got some really good dudes – guys who go out there and get us some bonus points and win us some matches,” says the younger Shepherd.
Finishing well is the coach’s advice that echoes in Hayden’s ears.
“Win the third period,” says Shepherd. “If you win the third period, it’s likely you’ll win the match.”
What does State Week look like for the Western Panthers?
“We’re going to focus on getting our weight down, keeping our conditioning and we will work on a few things we should have done (at semistate),” says Shepherd. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We got to the State Finals wrestling certain way and that’s how we’re going to wrestle.”